Monday, August 3, 2015

What Is Bonarda?

In the course of writing multiple editions of guidebooks to Argentina and Chile, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many wineries in those countries, and sampling their products. I wouldn’t claim to be a sommelier, but I think my experience in wine tourism is helpful to my readers, sometimes steering them toward new experiences.

At home we drink mostly Argentine and Chilean wines, partly because we’ve grown accustomed to varietals such as Malbec, Torrontés and Carménère, which are unique or nearly unique to the region (though I shouldn’t overlook Uruguay’s Tannat, either). Recently, though, I’ve found myself attracted to the red Bonarda, which is becoming more widespread in Argentina, particularly around Mendoza.
What is Bonarda, though? From the name, I’d always assumed it was an Italian varietal and, given Argentina’s wine-making heritage, I’d never looked into it more deeply. Yesterday, though, my wife and daughter went on a winery cycling tour in the Napa Valley – personally, I’m allergic to organized tours – and brought home a new vintage I had never heard of, a Judd’s Hill 2012 Charbono.

According to the winery’s website, “Some believe Charbono to be identical to the Dolcetto grape of Piedmonte [sic]; in fact, it is found there in both Dolcetto and Barbera vineyards. However, no wine labeled Charbono is produced in Italy.” That didn’t tell me a lot, so I went elsewhere for an overview and learned, tentatively, that Charbono is the French Douce Noir grape from the Savoie region - alternatively known as Bonarda! That Wikipedia entry, which seems well-sourced, repeats the statement that there is no relationship to its namesake Italian grape.

On the other hand, Wines of Argentina claims that "Bonarda is a variety blessed with great winemaking potentiality in Argentina and it is considered the second most important red grape, behind Malbec. The country is the only producer of this grape; therefore it is a varietal wine with no competition in other countries." I tend to dismiss such jingoism, which sounds preposterous to me, but Argentines nevertheless assert Italian origins for it.

Recently, on Twitter, I had a contentious exchange with a newly minted British sommelier - trained in Argentina - who asserted that Torrents was a "native" Argentine grape. I won't name her here, but I do know that there are no native wine grapes in the Western Hemisphere. Torrontés may be a distinctively Argentine varietal now, but all wine grapes have their origins in the Near East.

Likewise, Bonarda is one of Argentina's oldest varietals, but its precise origins sounds a bit obscure to me. At yesterday's Judd's Hill tasting, though, the sommelier told my wife that DNA testing has confirmed Bonarda/Charbono's French origins, and that's at least plausible to me.

No minor uncertainty will prevent me from enjoying either Bonarda (recently I received a bottle from a Mendoza winery that was great) or Charbono (which I haven’t yet sampled), but I’d like to hear a more credible account of Bonarda’s origins than Argentine sources have so far provided.


Anonymous said...

This is essentially the Bonarda story found in Evan Goldstein's "Wines of South America". I recall trying it years ago, but not very impressed. Goldstein also discusses the changes in cultivation now being used to get a better wine out of the grape. For some reason, in his later section on "super selections", he includes it with recommendations for Carignan, which is found in Chile. I assume that you have partaken of this grape as well (I have not). (Bob H.)

Wayne Bernhardson said...

I hadn't seen the Goldstein, but will look for it. There was an earlier good book by Harm de Blij, "Wine Regions of the Southern Hemisphere." I like Bonarda, and have tried plenty of Chilean Carignan, which is becoming a big deal.

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